How would you spend the last day of your life? Chilling with family? Creating a legacy that will outlast you? Drinking champagne on a yacht with Rihanna?
Gyasi Williams Kirtley asks exactly this question for The Last Days Project, a polaroid series that shares the answers for subjects including Naomi Campbell, Jaden Smith, and Donald Glover. She didn't set out to focus on people of color, but it happened organically, and she's pleased.
Gyasi—journalist, photographer, music lover, and Brooklyn kid— wants a generation prone to numbness to think about their legacy while they're still alive. After losing both her godmother and great uncle in a short period of time, she decided to investigate how other people coped with loss and survival. She wondered: did it make them feel helpless or motivated? Kinder? More adventurous?
Gyasi was born and raised in New York, a graduate of the Brooklyn School of Music and Theater in Prospect Heights. Her mother, an abstract painter, and her father, a dancer, taught she and her sisters early on how important art was to mental health. Gyasi's main passion has always been music, which eventually brought her to many of the subjects for Last Days.
What started for Gyasi as a small project at the 2016 Broccoli Festival has transformed into a much larger conversation about living and dying with the help of some very significant artists. Now, she's catalogued over 80 responses via polaroid from subjects she meets at music festivals and events around the U.S. Her ultimate goal is to garner a collection of at least 200 responses by traveling to Coachella, Rolling Loud Festival, Complex Con, and Art Basel this December.
Tell me about The Last Days Project. Why mortality?
At the time of the project's inception, I'd just recently experienced two major losses in my family. Death is like an elephant in the room for a lot of people. I don't think anyone is really comfortable with it until it directly affects you. Imagine how different human beings would live if they weren't afraid of the inevitable. I just want human beings, myself included, to be a lot more proactive in their own happiness.
How is the topic of mortality culturally significant right now?
Culturally, there are so many different things that separate us. Our pigmentation, our dialects, our belief systems. Death is the only thing that really connects us and reminds us we're connected. You only see people come together when bad things happen. I think it should always be that way, togetherness. Whatever you believe in, there's always an after. Even atheism, there's an after...they say it's nothingness. It's a state of change regardless. Me, I'm waiting for the day where everyone realizes we're all the same. This project is really me investigating life with the help of other people.
Who were your subjects, and how did they react to the topic?
I have so many people involved in this project it's humbling as fuck to be honest. Naomi Campbell? George Clinton? I look at it and flip out sometimes. I get to pick the brains of people I really admire in real life.
Some people can't answer. Like Naomi, she didn't write her answer because she spoke it to me. She said she didn't live that way. 9th Wonder couldn't answer the question either, but I respect it. I spoke with BADBADNOTGOOD for an hour in the studio. We just talked about what we all would do. I love them for being so open with me. Young people should be having more thoughtful conversations.
Thundercat said he would eat. Donald Glover said he would cook for his family. I asked Steve Aoki on the day of his clothing line launch in New York. He told me he would want to be where he is, right here, right now. My favorite response via the project is from this amazing producer named Black Party. He was the first photo I ever took in this project and he had the most bad-ass response: Do acid and buy bikes for kids. That one made me want to really push this project to its limits.
Why is it primarily people of color you depicted in the project?
It's not purposeful, but I'm happy that it turned out that way. I'm happy to represent people of color in a positive, thought-provoking way. I'm sure my great-great-great ancestors would be proud of that.
How did you get such huge stars to participate?
I'm a journalist first. Photographer second. I'm usually at concerts doing interviews so I end up around all these amazing people. I usually just walk up and let them know what I'm doing. Most people are really cool about it and support it since it's such a different concept.
In your series you have Jaden Smith's response depicted as, "I feel Like shit." What was that conversation like?
Jaden didn't speak about depression. I asked him how he felt, literally how he was feeling at the moment I took the photo and that's what he said. The response speaks to a larger idea though. For me, it is a beautiful example that it's okay to feel...whatever you're feeling. Good, bad. People don't like to feel anymore and that's very important to mental health. Everyone goes through highs and lows, but it's important to work your way through your emotions. Instead of brushing me off, he gave me an honest response. Most people think just because someone is successful and famous that they aren't capable of having a bad day - that they aren't human. This proves otherwise.
I read you were bullied growing up-- girls even used to give you death threats. Did that influence you as an artist generally?
That experience made me a savage. If my experience with bullying taught me anything, it's that everything is survivable. My history with bullying is extremely relevant to this project. I make art for my 13-year-old self. She went through it! Depression is something that plagues a great number of people and I firmly believe art is the cure.
What would you do with your last 24 hours?
My answer changes every day. Today, I'd listen to Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar, 'Never Catch Me.'
Photography Esther Faciane
Text Alison Segel
All photography courtesy Gyasi Williams, The Last Days Project